HL Deb 30 June 1905 vol 148 cc629-35

rose to call attention to a resolution, adopted at the recent Conference on International Maritime Law at Liverpool, pointing out the necessity of the representation of His Majesty's Government at the forthcoming International Conference convened by the Government of Belgium to consider the draft codes relating to collisions at sea and salvage; and to move to resolve, "That, in the opinion of this House, it is desirable that, in the interests of British shipping, His Majesty's Government should ensure that this country should be represented at the International Conference on Shipping Law about to be held in Belgium."

The noble Lord said: Your Lordships may remember that last year I urged upon the Government the importance of the forthcoming International Maritime Conference convened by the Belgian Government, and how imperative it was that this country should be represented at that conference. On March 4th of last year the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs received a deputation made up of most of the highest authorities in the shipping and legal world. From the reply of the noble Marquess to this deputation it was clear that he. was impressed by the magnitude and gravity of the interests involved in the matter, and by the interdependence of the interests of our country and our merchant service. Furthermore, the noble Marquess was quite alive to the weighty character of the deputation itself.

It is the case that hitherto the British Government of the day have refused to participate in Maritime Congresses such as that about to take place. The reasons which have prompted them in this have been expressed in the reply of the noble Marquess in this House and. in that to the deputation to which I have alluded. These reasons, I gather, are, firstly, that it is not in accordance with precedent that the British Government should appoint representatives at conferences of the kind; and, secondly, that whilst British shipping was the predominant partner in the world's shipping it would only be allowed equal representation with the smaller maritime Powers. The first argument, viz:—that of a departure from precedent, is to my mind a very puerile one. It is transparent that if this country remains in the old rut we will be very quickly overshadowed by the bold enterprise and modern methods of the other Powers. IE we have followed certain antiquated practices in the past, does it follow that we must perpetuate them? The dishonourable and dishonest land legislation in Ireland has been a very distinct departure from precedent.

It is notorious that our merchant service suffers acutely from obsolete and absurd laws and regulations. We do absolutely nothing in keeping pace with the times. In this matter we pursue our fine old-crusted conservatism to the end, and, if we continue to do so, before long we shall find where it is leading us to. We are certainly not tied to precedent, and there is nothing whatever to prevent the departure of His Majesty's Government from it in the present instance. To come to the second argument, as to the United Kingdom having only the same representation at the congress as other maritime Powers, I may say that from a superficial point of view it might appear to be a very forcible one. But it is plain to see that representation according to tonnage would mean that the representatives of the United Kingdom would swamp the whole conference, and we would never get the smaller maritime Powers to agree to this.

The mere fact of England sending a representative to the Belgian Conference does not in any way commit this country to anything or anybody. It is simply encouraging an object of which everybody is desirous, namely, a unification of the shipping laws of the different maritime nations. His Majesty's Government are not bound to follow the decisions of a conference simply because they had a representative, there. They need not pledge themselves in the slightest. After all, we may safely turn to the different shipping authorities who have the most at stake. We find that, in the face of all the arguments presented by the Government, the International Maritime Conference at Liverpool has recently carried unanimously the following resolution— That the representatives of the British ship owners, merchants, and under writers attending this conference are of opinion that in the interests of the international commerce of this country it is of the first importance that His Majesty's Government should be represented at the International Conference convened by the Government of Belgium to consider the draft codes relating to collisions at sea and salvage, and that the secretaries are respectfully requested to submit a copy of this resolution to His Majesty's Government.

The representative character of this conference may be gathered when I inform your Lordship that it consisted of representatives of the Incorporated chamber of commerce of Liverpool, the International Law Association, the General Council of the Bar, London, the chambers of commerce of Paris, London, Liverpool, and other places, the Liverpool Steam Ship owners' Association, the Incorporated Law Society of Liverpool, the London Steam Ship owners' Association, the London Steam Ship owners' Mutual Insurance Association, the Thames and Mersey Marine Insurance Company, the Institute of London Underwriters' Association, the Liverpool Average Adjusters' Association, the United Steam Ship owners' Association, the Chamber of Shipping of the United Kingdom, the North of England Steam Ship owners' Association, the Alliance Marine Insurance Company, and other eminent shipping authorities.

Mr. Justice Phillimore

, speaking on one occasion at Antwerp, said— The attitude of the British Government in not only churlish, but may even seem ridiculous, when one recollects that the draft treaty on salvage embodies the English law without substantial, I believe even without formal, modification; while there are only three modifications of English law in the draft treaty on collision, and only one of these is likely to give rise to dispute I do not hesitate to say that by declining to nominate a representative at the Belgian Maritime Conference His Majesty's Government are flying in the face of public opinion. This House is supposed to present a true and honest reflex of public opinion, which, after all, is the supreme law. The maintenance of our present attitude simply means that we are acting as a drag on the wheels of progress, and if we remain where we are, we can relegate a unification of the maritime laws of nations to the Greek Kalends.

In moving the Resolution which stands in my name it is under a sense that it is our duty to not only listen to public, opinion but to give effect to it when we see that, as in the present instance, opinion emanates from those who really know and who are both unanimous and emphatic. I trust to hear from the noble Marquess that, as a result of mature consideration, His Majesty's Government have decided to nominate a representative. I might mention that it is not only ship owners' and shipping lawyers' views I am quoting, for I have-been urged to bring this matter forward by the Merchant Service Guild as one-calculated to benefit the interests of our merchant service. I beg to move the Motion standing in my name.

Moved to resolve, "That, in the opinion of this House, it is desirable that, in the interests of British shipping, His Majesty's Government should ensure that this country should be represented at the International Conference on Shipping Law about to be held in Belgium to consider the draft codes relating to collisions at sea and salvage."—(Lord, Muskerry.)


My Lords, before the noble Marquess the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs replies, I wish to say a word or two upon this subject, as it is one in which I have for a great many years taken considerable interest; and I desire to do so the more because I must dissociate myself from some of the arguments used by the noble Lord. I cannot agree that the previous refusal of the Governments of the Queen and His Majesty to take part as a Government in an international conference has been due to the worse form of conservatism; nor do I agree with Mr. Justice Phillimore that the attitude of the British Government has been churlish or prompted by other than the best feeling. I know that there were very good reasons why Her late Majesty's Government could not take official part in congresses, as they might thereby be led into discussions which would not be to the best interests of the nation; but in the present position of matters I think things have somewhat changed.

The question of the incidence of liability in the matter of collision at sea, to say nothing of the second subject, that of salvage, has been attracting the attention of maritime nations for a considerable number of years, and it is the fact that the present uncertainty of the law—depending as it does in some cases where the vessel happens to be arrested, in some cases upon the place where the collision occurs, and in some cases upon the nationality of the ship—makes it impossible for owners of ships to know exactly what their liability is. There is therefore a very strong feeling among the maritime nations that the time has come when an attempt should be made to get something like uniformity in these matters. If that is admitted, it is, as the noble Lord said, of very great importance that the views of British shipping interests should be heard. Foreign nations are prepared to pay great attention to the attitude taken by British ship owners and British lawyers in this respect, and, therefore, I think, subject to what may be, I am sure, the wise decision of the noble Marquess and His Majesty's Government as regards the line which should be taken, that the question does merit serious consideration.

I do not for a moment say that representation at the conference should be of an official character, but I think it is very desirable that whoever does go from this country to represent British interests at the Belgium Conference should be in touch with His Majesty's Government. I do not know whether the noble Marquess has yet received the resolutions that were passed after a most interesting discussion at the conference held in Liverpool a few days ago, over which Mr. Justice Kennedy presided, and the discussion at which was marked by moderation and a desire to introduce into any amendment of the law the best considerations both of policy and public utility, and by the wish that the view of Great Britain in this matter should be respected. I do not press the noble Marquess to give any pledge which he feels he cannot give, but I do trust that he will allow me to urge upon him my conviction that some step in the direction indicated in the noble Lord's Motion is required in the interests of British commerce and British shipping.


My Lords, it is almost superfluous for me to assure your Lord ships that His Majesty's Government are well ware of the great importance of the subject to which this Motion has reference. The noble Lord who introduced it this evening mentioned a deputation which I had the honour of receiving at the Foreign Office. That deputation was one of the most representative and influential that ever waited upon a British Minister. It is perfectly true that we did not think it desirable that an official representative should be sent to the conference which sat last year, for the reason mentioned by the noble old. I found that there was a very strong feeling that, considering the magnitude of our shipping interests, there would be a certain amount of ask in allowing any official representatives sent to attend this conference on behalf of this country to commit us in any way as to the manner in which we might hereafter deal with this subject by legislation. That may have been, perhaps, excessive caution; but it was a feeling, I know, which was very widely entertained.

The position at present is this. The conference, I understand, suspended its sittings and is to meet again in September, and the Question which presume I am asked is whether, when that conference reassembles, we shall take any part, official or unofficial, in its proceedings. In the meanwhile there has taken place another conference representative of our own shipping interests—I mean the conference held at Liverpool, to which the Lord Chief Justice referred. The resolution of that conference, reached me only the day before yesterday. It is a short resolution, decidedly in favour of participation by this country. But beyond that resolution we have as yet received nothing from the Liverpool Conference. I think, therefore, we are entitled to ask that we should have a fuller opportunity of considering not only the resolution of the conference, but the account of its proceedings upon which that resolution was based.

I can assure both noble Lords who have spoken that we shall approach the consideration of the matter with an open mind. I think we may derive some encouragement from the knowledge that the draft codes dealing with the subjects of salvage and collision, which have, I under-stand, been approved by this conference, are both of them drawn upon lines which are very much in accord with the law which prevails in this country. I am afraid I must, in those circumstances, return a somewhat dilatory Answer to the Question of the noble Lord; but I can promise him that when we receive the fuller account of the proceedings of the Liverpool Conference, we shall examine them with the desire that the interests of this country may be represented, if not officially, at any rate in some adequate manner, at the subsequent meetings of the Belgian Conference.


Under those circumstances, I ask your Lordships' permission to with draw my Motion.

Motion, by leave of the House, with drawn.